Those wanting more insight into the emotions, thoughts, stress, and more of being out in the field, jungle, waterways, etc during the Vietnam War – and especially at night – should read this article.

Admin note: I added photos from the internet for this article

By Gary Capshaw

Sunset comes quickly in the tropics, as does sunrise. There is very little lingering by the sun. It goes across the sky and drops like a stone over the horizon and darkness follows very shortly. Twilight is brief, very brief. There doesn’t seem to be much time for it. Everything here seems in a hurry, and darkness is no different. It has a mission too and must get on with it. Perhaps the darkness is under the control of the enemy, for it is his time of day. He uses it better than we do the light and the sun must be part of his operational readiness or something. I know it comes too soon and lasts too long.

We don’t operate at night. We don’t know how. Some of the Army does, the special operations forces; Green Berets and Rangers, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, but we in the common Infantry do not. We haven’t been trained for it. Yes, we had quite a bit of exercise conducted in the dark during basic and advanced training, but that was on an individual level. Things like Individual Tactical Training, night firing, and night road marches. We had to learn how to conceal ourselves and shoot at indistinct objects and not tarry or wander away, but we never practiced doing anything at night as a unit except sit in place and wait for the enemy to come to us, so that’s what we do here. We gather ourselves into an armed circle, which the Germans used to call a hedgehog, and the Boers called a kraal, and sit quietly and patiently hoping that the enemy will find us and praying that he won’t.

The VC, on the other hand, are comfortable in the night. It is their busiest time as they move about, resupply themselves, set up ambushes and harass the “long noses.” That’s us, their pet name for us Americans, much as we call them “dinks,” or “gooks.” They also sometimes call us “monkey men.”

They shift forces around, attack installations, and move supplies down the trails under the cloak of darkness very well, I guess. They seem to get it done, anyhow, although I’m sure that, being human, they don’t like it any more than we would. Nighttime is scary to most people because you can’t see what’s out there and here, in this place, the night holds real, not imagined terrors. Unlike the mythical monster under the bed, which is purely the product of an over-active imagination, terror and death do lurk in the shadows here, for real. The VC, though, don’t seem to mind. Then again, they’re probably ordered to do it by some idiot at battalion headquarters just as we are ordered to do foolish things by foolish people and they, like we, have to do it. I think we have much more in common with our enemy than we like to admit.

I do know that they are not infallible in the dark. We crouched in our holes one night in Dragon Valley and listened as a group of VC tried to navigate a trail which came up the hillside into our perimeter and they had a lot of trouble at it. They fell, they cursed, they slipped and slid in the mud and finally gave up, just as we probably would have done, and like soldiers in all armies, went off to find an easier way to do what they had been told to do. It was a fortunate move on their part that night, for they avoided death without knowing it.

This night finds us on the side of a ridgeline in the Que Son Mountains, facing the broad valley of the Song Vu Ghia to the north. Off to the east, we can see the glow of lights from Da Nang reflecting off the cloud cover lingering near the coast. Here, the sky is clear as it is now the dry season, and the monsoon winds had shifted, blowing the rain into Laos and China.

It is unsettling to sit here, exposed, vulnerable, more dead than alive, and see the lights of a great city shining in the distance. It is another world, one which I used to inhabit, a world of traffic and shopping, civilization and girls, cars and nights on the beach. True, it is a wartime city which I can see and they are not immune from the fighting, but to me, it represents something I miss and something with which I can no longer identify. It represents peace, which represents home, and I miss it terribly.

Peace. How marvelous it would be not to be at war anymore. How wonderful to go about your daily existence without having to think of death, without having to worry and wonder if yesterday was the last sunset you’d ever see. I have difficulty imagining it anymore. I have been here now for six months and have become accustomed to the madness so much that it now seems normal and ordinary, the usual state of affairs and my previous life is gone, gone for good and I’m unsure if it will ever come back. Can it come back? I don’t know. If I live long enough to catch that freedom bird out of here, I’ll find out, but not until then, and I won’t ride that out of here if I keep daydreaming about it. I have things to do which compel my attention.

Ching and I have dug our hole, such as it is. It isn’t very big nor very deep for the ground here is very rocky. There is no jungle in these hills, just scrub brush and rocks, lots of rocks. In the daytime, they reflect the heat of the dry season sun back into your face so that you get sunburned top and bottom. The heat is horrid, a dry, furnace-like heat that melts souls on contact. We are exhausted, wrung out by the sun and while the darkness may be dangerous, it is good to see the sun sit behind the A Shau valley off over there to the west. The shadows from the higher mountains over there march steadily across the valley and engulf us in their cool bath. The temperature seems to drop about twenty degrees instantly and it feels good on my tortured skin.

This has been a very difficult day, and the sun has done more damage to us than the enemy. We have not seen the VC here today, but have battled the heat and we lost. Several of us are in the hospital now from heat stroke, including poor old Tiny who was in a coma when he left here, and many more are there for bee stings which they got when the point man cut open a hive with his machete. The casualty rate for today must be near 20% and we fired not a shot.

That’s not exactly true. One man is gone from a booby trap, on his way home without a knee and maybe without a leg. We don’t know, and may never know. He hit it; it blew up in his face, they loaded him on a helicopter and he’s gone. Just like that. That’s how people leave here, suddenly and with no warning. This day did not start any differently for him than did any day before, there was no indication that his life would irrevocably change before noon, but it did and while it is scary to contemplate how much that scenario applies to everyone, including me, it is commonplace now and something which I do not dwell on for I know, deep in my heart, that it will soon happen to me too. It will happen to all of us eventually, I guess. There doesn’t seem to be any way out of here in one piece.

Most of the others are asleep now and I’m on guard. Two others are watching from their holes around the perimeter and someone is at the LT’s tent on radio watch. There are always four of us awake at any time, but we don’t bother each other. No moving around and talking to each other in the darkness. It makes too much noise and is a good way to get shot. Each of us sits at our holes alone with our own thoughts, watching and listening for whatever might be out there, might sneak up into grenade range, or just watch us.

Out here, it could be the VC or NVA, they’re around because we’ve seen their trails and found their animal traps. This is an infiltration route from their base camp areas over the hills there in Antenna Valley, but we haven’t had any contact at all and that’s scary. We know they’re here but can’t find them. That means they are avoiding us for a reason or planning something. The strain of walking around in this awful, desolate, hot place is wearing us down physically and mentally, but we don’t have any choice. I am so tired and so depressed. I wish they would kill me now and shorten my suffering.

There are also forms of wildlife in these hills that we have to worry about. One of the other platoons shot a giant lizard a while back and carried it around with them as proof until it began to stink. Down in the little natural lakes between these hills are crocodiles, we’ve been told. I wasn’t aware that they had them here, but I’m not going swimming to find out. There are also some tigers here because we’ve heard them at night and I saw a flash of orange disappear into the brush the other day while walking at point. My flesh tingles and crawls at the thought of being eaten alive. It has happened in the past, in this very area to some Marines. Is there no end to the ways I can die here?

Darkness is fully settled now and the insects and frogs begin talking to each other. Their buzz and chirping is reassuring. They sound so familiar in this unfamiliar place, almost lulling me into a sense of security as I listen. My ears ring a lot now, ever since a 122mm rocket hurled me into a building at LZ Rawhide a few weeks ago and it’s difficult for me to hear and that’s worrisome too. I never could hear too well anyhow and have often worried that I might miss something which would get one of us killed, but there’s nothing I can do about it but watch carefully. If I were responsible for one of my friends being hit, I’d probably lose my mind. I sometimes feel very close to losing it anyhow.

Any more, I am angry all the time now, at anything or at nothing at all. The uselessness of our sacrifices, and the inevitable fall of South Vietnam to the communists in spite of our dying and hurting is becoming hard to bear. Why don’t we just quit and go home before we all get killed? What are we still doing this for?

The odds are shortening for all of us every day. Since I’ve been here, Pop’s and Gray have died, and my friend Stout from the third platoon, and I don’t know how many have been wounded. It seems like a lot. Some have made it out of here without being hit, but they are few. We’ve got a few replacements and many of them are already gone. Ferguson hit a booby trap, Daly broke his back, Smitty got hit in the neck, our old medic, Doc Yubeta got shot in the stomach, and Swonger got shrapnel in his hand. Who else? I can’t remember, but thinking brings back the fear, the wondering what it is like to be hit and the dread of it happening, which it surely will. I’ve given up hope and hope is an awful thing to lose. How much longer can I take this without breaking?

To distract myself, I turn and gaze up at the stars. They are so pretty and so many of them out here where there are no lights to interfere. There they hang, eternal witnesses to our foolishness. I wonder what they would think of us if they could think? How must we appear to them? Sitting there underneath their glorious canopy, I’m reminded once again of the briefness of my life, it’s nothing compared to them. The light I see from that star over there, for instance, left it to come here billions of years ago when the dinosaurs still walked around here and it’s only just now arriving. I feel small and insignificant before them and even though I like my life, or did before Vietnam, it really doesn’t amount to much and I suppose that’s a good thing since I’ll likely lose it soon anyhow.

Morbid thoughts again. It seems that’s all I do anymore, that and be angry. I’ve become someone I don’t really like but seem unable to change myself back into whatever I was before I came here so very, very long ago. It seems like eons and so far away that it is like a dream while this place is like a nightmare. I feel trapped, caged, tied to a runaway train about to hurtle over a cliff and I can’t jump off. Helpless, hopeless, no future, no past, just the mindless present and it goes on and on and on every day just like the last, and none of them good. I don’t have good days anymore and I find nothing amusing, little to laugh about or at, nothing to do except wait to die and I’m bored with that. Death would be a relief.

I turn my attention to the bush around me, scanning the area for signs of movement. It’s unlikely the dinks could sneak up on us here because it is so rocky. They’d make some noise that even I could hear. The other guards are sitting quietly in their holes showing no signs of alarm, so all seems well. This rocky wilderness is much better than jungle or rice paddies because the vegetation there can muffle the noise of someone moving about and they can get close to you in the dark without being seen. We’ve had it done to us before such as the night Dunning got hurt.

Out in the valley, a stream of red tracer bullets suddenly appears. They float soundlessly out into the darkness and soon, the sound reaches my ears. A heavy, monotonous throbbing. .50 cal machine gun on somebody’s track vehicle down there. There is no return fire and it gets quiet again. I wonder what they were shooting at? I really don’t care. It’s their war, not mine.

It’s peaceful and quiet up here in the hills, with no noise of any kind save the gentle rustling of the bushes in the breeze. Here on the side of this hill, the wind blows up from the valley, refreshing me and reminding me of days as a kid when I used to lie on my back and watch the wind blow through the tops of the sycamore and cottonwood trees back home. The trees would murmur their contentment and so would I. Here, the breeze sounds the same, but I am not content.

A distant, muffled pop draws my attention back to the valley. Artillery flares are going off near where the machine gun fired a few moments ago, twisting and weaving their way to the ground, casting a moving blend of light and shadow. The sight of them makes me uneasy as I know what is going on underneath. Men are crouching in their holes, peering out into the landscape, hoping to see something and dreading it if they do. We’ve done that, I’ve done that before and it is frightening to know that if you can see them under the flares, they can see you too. The war never ends; it goes on night and day, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with no holidays. Someone is dying tonight and no one will notice.

Off in the distance, I hear the steady crump of artillery fire crashing into the ground. It’s too far away to be seen and the sound tells me it is no threat to me. Artillery at a distance always sounds very much to me like a recording of an explosion played backward for some reason. It starts out slow and then builds rapidly to an abrupt end, exactly the opposite of what you would expect. I don’t know why.

Now, the rattle of small arms fire begins over behind us somewhere. The night is heating up. Someone is in contact and someone is probably dying right now. Death is always around, always doing his business and we can hear his sound all the time. It may not be where we are, but the Reaper is on the move and all that artillery and all those bullets are just sort of like background music to death which we have become accustomed to. God, I’m tired of hearing death. It just never ends, never.

I scan the area once again to force my mind off the ever-present subject. Not only am I tired of hearing death and seeing death and smelling death, but I’m also tired of waiting for it too. I want it to happen just to end the suspense.

I need a cigarette. We really shouldn’t smoke at night because a lit cigarette is visible for a long way in the darkness, but we do it all the time. I slide down into the foxhole I’ve had my legs dangling into and crouch down at the very bottom, leaning over to shield myself. I cup my hands around the lighter and quickly fire one up. Continuing to hold the cigarette in my cupped hands, I sit back up and smoke, the heat, and smoke trapped in my hands make it taste funny and my hands stink from it all the time. I know smoking is bad for me but what the heck? I’m going to die sooner than cancer will kill me anyhow.

It’s quiet and peaceful here if you can use a word like peaceful in relation to this place. It’s really never that and isn’t now as the firing off behind us has intensified and I can hear the whump of grenades being thrown now. Someone is having a nice little firefight over there and I feel for them, feel their tension and their fear as they fire out into the bushes at things that they most likely can’t see. I’ve done it too and know that they will not sleep the rest of the night after it is over, knowing what they must endure before the sun rises again. It’s awful to hear and worse to remember. Thankfully, it abruptly ends.

I look about some more. One has to be careful at night as things appear to move and the shadows change position as the stars and moon orbit overhead. It’s easy to scare yourself, easy to mistake a bush for a man and when that happens, you won’t breathe for ten minutes, I swear. But I’m an old hand now and know all the tricks. I can’t remember how many nights I’ve sat up on guard, don’t want to remember, I only know that it has been a long time and it seems like forever, as if this is the only job I ever had, as if it were the only life I ever had and in many ways it is. I don’t feel as if I have ever done anything else nor ever will again.

Now that the distant shooting and artillery have stopped for a while, I can just barely hear the murmuring of a small creek down at the foot of the hill and can imagine what it looks like. I want to just casually stroll down there and sit with my feet in the water and relax. Maybe I should do just that. Maybe I would get lucky and someone would shoot me and put an end to my agony. God, I hate this place, hate doing this, hate waiting to die, hate being away from home, hate knowing that I may never see my family again nor they see me. I’m so depressed, so in pain, so ashamed of myself for wanting to come here, so embarrassed for the pain I’ve caused others. I want out, I want out, but there is no way out, no relief, no relief. I must stay until it is over, no matter how it turns out.

I shift my thoughts once again. I must quit thinking this way and I wonder if I’m the only one. Do the other guys think like this? I don’t know. I only know the pain I feel, not theirs, and they don’t know mine because I never say these things out loud. I’m afraid they would understand.

Thank God it’s time for me to wake my relief. I don’t have to go far as he’s in the tent right behind me. I lean back and shake Ching’s foot. He stirs but does not get up. I shake it harder and he rolls over, peers out at me and whispers a cheerful “Good morning.” It’s his idea of a joke and it is funny. There is nothing good about this and besides, it isn’t morning yet. Slowly, reluctantly, he slides out of the tent and sits beside me. Around the perimeter, I can see and hear the other guards changing shifts too and it’s reassuring and brings a feeling of comfort to me to know that they are on duty too and I am protected. I love these men and I know that when I close my eyes, they won’t let me down, none of them. They will be my eyes and ears while I sleep.

I hand Ching the watch and whisper that I haven’t seen or heard anything. He nods and I crawl back into the tent with my feet toward the foxhole, secure and content. I am sleepy, but sleep will not come soon, I don’t think. Still too much to dwell on.

I sit up as far as I can inside the tent and remove my boots and socks. The night air feels so good on my hot and swollen feet. Instantly, they start to itch and I scratch them hard, the heat of my finger sliding between the toes a comfort. Now, the itching advances up to the ankle and then to my calves. I chase it with my fingernails, digging and clawing it away and it feels better than sex. This happens every night, this battle with itching and I know that in the morning, there will be blood on my leg, but I don’t care, it feels so good.

Eventually, I scratch it away and can get on with going to bed. I set my boots just to the right of my feet with the socks stuffed down into them to keep out bugs. My shirt comes off and is folded just so and placed on top of the boots. I lay my rifle off to my right, handgrip out, and muzzle toward the foxhole so that if I need it, I can lay my hand on it with my finger on the trigger. It is my nightly routine and I take comfort in it because I can now find whatever I need in the dark without fumbling for it. I empty what little I have in my pants pocket into my upturned helmet and keep my pants on. I have this unnatural fear of having to fight naked and will not remove them, ever.

I lie down on my punctured air mattress and cover up with a light poncho liner. The ground is hard and I can feel small rocks underneath so I spend a few minutes searching for them. At last, I am sort of comfortable, but sleep doesn’t come just yet.

I lie awake for a while listening to the sounds of the night, bugs and frogs, distant artillery, men snoring and rolling over in the darkness, others mumbling in their sleep. Nightmares, probably, or dreams of wives and girlfriends. Who knows what goes through their minds? I only know what goes through mine and most of it makes me sad or angry or depressed. I must get out of this place.

I close my eyes and sleep eventually steals up on me. Sometime tonight, I might die but I don’t care and that is my last conscious thought for the day, that I don’t care anymore and it doesn’t even bother me enough to keep me awake.

Gary Capshaw of Company C, 2nd Battalion 1st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Infantry Brigade posted this article on the VietnamWarHistoryOrg Facebook group page.


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